In The Primacy of the Common Good Against the Personalists (1943), the Thomist philosopher Charles Dekoninck put his finger on the metaphysical origins of all war and conflict. The root of such evils is a distortion of the very idea of the common good, and a distortion of the desire for the common good that is natural to mankind. In the Thomistic tradition, the common good is by its very nature meant to be shared amongst a multitude of individuals, rather than reserved exclusively for private enjoyment. Furthermore, it is a good that does not diminish when it is shared; on the contrary, enjoyment of this good increases precisely in the measure that it is shared.
War and conflict arise when the common good is desired not for its commonness, but simply for private enjoyment. In Dekoninck’s words, “The fallen angels did not refuse the perfection of the good that was offered them, they refused its community and they scorned that community” (The Writings of Charles Dekoninck, Vol. 2, 79-80). DeKoninck here is fully consistent with St. Thomas Aquinas, who writes that “to love the good of any society so that it might be had or possessed, does not constitute the political good. Thus does a tyrant love the good of the state in order to dominate it, which is to love himself more than the state; for he desires this good for himself, not for the state” (Quaestiones Disputatae de Virtutibus Q.2 A.2.). By contrast, to love the common good as one should is to love it precisely as common, to love its very communicability, and thus to love the whole community of persons for whom that good is intended.
The idea of the common good is easily illustrated by the example of friendship. Friendship is, in a way, a paradigmatic instance of the common good. Friendship practically consists in the shared enjoyment among two or more people of some good held in common. This is a good that is desirable to human beings by their very nature, even though they sometimes contradict the virtues of friendship through their actions. Such offenses essentially consist in a failure of sharing, or a failure to treat the common good of friendship as truly common, and they result in the destruction of friendships and the birth of conflicts. A virtuous friendship is one that treats what is common as common, rather than seeking to privatize shared goods or possess them to the exclusion of others.
But human friendship is not the only, or even the most important, example of the common good. Even more pertinent to the common good is friendship with God. Indeed, this is the highest and most universal of all common goods, because it is the end to which all human beings without exception are called. But whereas any human friendship can be broken by either of the two friends causing a disruption in their community of enjoyment, in friendship with God, this community can only be disrupted by man. God cannot break any friendship, for he is himself the shared good that constitutes his friendship with his creatures.
Because friendship with God is a common good, it follows that a virtuous person is one who loves the common good precisely as something to be shared, and therefore he does not rob from any of his fellows any of those things on which they depend for their ability to participate in the common good. Nor does he appeal to the common good which he enjoys as a justification for depriving others of its enjoyment. Rather, he seeks the good of others – the essence of Christian love – and desires for them what he himself enjoys. Nor does a virtuous person appeal to his own virtue in order to exclude others from the common good. Instead, he seeks to help others become virtuous like himself, so that they may enjoy the same goods with him in friendship and solidarity.
Furthermore, because friendship with God is a common good, its achievement is the direct responsibility of human society as such, and those to whom authority over society is given. It follows that any society – the family, the city, the nation, or even the international community – may be judged according to how it facilitates the diffusion of the common good amongst its members. A truly virtuous society is one that invites all into participation of the common good of friendship with God. It is a society that provides them with the material and spiritual conditions that they require for participation in the common good. To the extent that the material or spiritual conditions of a given society prevent anyone from participating in the common good, that society suffers from a fundamental injustice.
It is on these grounds that the Catholic tradition has always viewed capitalist economies with much suspicion. Capitalism has always struggled to justify itself by relation to the common good, and indeed in many cases its apologists have renounced this concept altogether. In any case, from the point of view of the Catholic tradition, the grave inequalities of wealth, the obsession with material gain, the preponderance of time that is lost in the pursuit of material gain, etc., are structural conditions that militate against full participation in the common good of society. These conditions rather breed resentment, isolation, selfishness, and conflict, sure signs that the diffusive quality of the common good is not being permitted to blossom. One might say that such conditions are indicative of a structural inclination against universal friendship among men as well as friendship with God.
The same principle obtains among nations on the international scale. A nation that appeals to the common good in order to justify actions that effectively deprive others of its enjoyment, thereby abuses the very nature of the common good. The wickedness of every unjust declaration of war originates in exactly this abuse, which is an offense against justice. Countless forms of religious violence have originated from this same error. The needless pillage and destruction that often result from modern warfare deprive ordinary people of the ability to participate in the common good. This cannot be justified on religious grounds, for religion itself pertains to the most common of goods, namely God himself.
The error of many forms of nationalism, especially religious nationalism, is precisely that they subordinate religion to a merely particular good (the good of the nation) as opposed to the truly universal good. Any form of religion that makes itself serve the ends of a particular nation state is thus an abuse of religion, because religion pertains to the worship of God, who is the absolutely universal good. Indeed, the relationship ought to be the reverse: particular nations and their governing authorities ought to serve religion, and especially that religion which lays claim to universality.
The Catholic religion is nearly alone among religions in that it does not tie itself down to particular nationalities or regional identities. As such, it has always been the greatest threat to nationalist forms of totalitarianism, even to Christian versions of nationalism. Catholicism necessarily undermines any exclusionary claim to national sovereignty, especially when such a claim is backed by an appeal to the national religion. Although some nations have attempted to use Catholicism itself this way, by its nature Catholicism refuses to be the servant of any nature, because its claims absolutely transcend national boundaries and it makes its appeal to all nations. “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19).
By the same token, the Catholic Faith makes its appeal to all human beings regardless of class. The supernatural destiny which the Catholic Church oversees is proposed to all human beings without exception – the meaning of Vatican II’s “universal call to holiness.” In this way, the Church has always been perceived as an enemy to the individualistic ideology of liberalism, not to mention the political and economic structures over which liberal ideology presides. Because these structures attempt to facilitate the privatization of all goods, including goods that are properly common goods, their rulers and apologists have always viewed the claims of Catholicism as a formidable threat.
The conversion of the world and its powers is thus of the highest priority for the Catholic Church. Catholicism is related to the common good in a special way, precisely because of the universality of its claims, and therefore the Church and her members possess a particularly grave responsibility to society at large. This responsibility consists in nothing short of the reconstruction and sanctification of the whole temporal order, including and especially the political order, and its reorientation to the common good of friendship with God.
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